Crawling up the cold, slanted slab of cement has already gotten old, but this is now home. The crawl space just below the underpass is as good as it gets until you get your feet back on the ground. You push the flap to your tent aside, take a quick glimpse back at the dry riverbed some 60 feet away, wonder how you got there, and then crawl in for the night.
It isn’t too far fetched to imagine what life would be like if suddenly—tomorrow or maybe this afternoon—you lost your house, your job, your car, your bank accounts, and almost everything you might have held dear in your life.
What then? Where do you go? What do you do? You’re on your own, and you’ve got to do what you can to survive. And it isn’t going to be easy. Given these possibilities, American Survival Guide decided to pound the pavement in Denver and the urban sprawls of the greater Los Angeles area to learn a bit more about some survival methods, both proactive and preventative, that might benefit those to whom such circumstances should befall. There are proven ways to survive within our respective concrete jungles.
Obviously, the most important of your basic needs will fall under this category. No matter the situation, a safe, warm, dry place to rest and recoup is a given. You have three aspects to look out for, in terms of setting up a place to sleep: protection from the elements/danger, warmth, and concealment. You also have three options, depending on the situation: You can sleep in a vehicle if you have access to one, you can seek out a homeless shelter, or you can resort to an urban campsite of your own.
Vehicle: Obviously, your car or some type of motor vehicle is ideal cover. Should you have access to a vehicle, parking in a Wal-Mart, 24 Hour Fitness, major hotel chain, or any other type of all-night business parking lot is advised—if you are able to get to these locations. Due to these companies’ business hours, you’re less likely to have anyone questioning the car or paying you a visit. Your car can, of course, provide you with occasional heat if you need it, as well as power for connective devices such as laptops or cell phones, if you have one. There are many A/C adaptors within the $20 to $40 range, and you would be well served to keep one in your vehicle or bug-out bag, along with your phone charger (which you already probably keep on hand).
Sunshades are also advised, because these are not only great for daytime protection, they are ideal for nighttime privacy, as well, especially if your vehicle lacks tinted windows.
Homeless Shelters: Shelters are extremely beneficial to those in urban areas, and the homeless communities at large vastly appreciate them. However, staying in one can be trying for a newbie seeking a bed in a city homeless shelter, because this scenario comes with a bundle of other troubles. You have to sign up early to get a spot, and doing so sometimes requires you to be confined to the immediate area for the day. The night before our Denver visit, there had been 523 men sleeping on mats or in beds in a large warehouse space.
“Most of these guys are on one drug or another,” says Greg, 48. Shelters can often become a dog-eat-dog world in which what’s yours can quickly become someone else’s. Albert, 40, originally from Los Angeles, explains how he slept at night in the shelters. “I’d keep my legs on my suitcase and use my backpack as a pillow. Ain’t nobody going to try and take anything from me.” An overwhelming consensus is that shelter accommodations would be best if limited to the occasional use for one or two days a week, based around meal giveaways and personal needs, such as showering and seeking alternate clothing. Shelters can, however, offer assistance programs, substance abuse counseling, and a variety of placement programs for long-term homeless folks looking to get back on their feet. These programs should not be overlooked if applicable to your situation. Many of the people we interviewed felt that being on their own in the street was superior in a psychological sense, because they did not want to become dependent on the shelter or its “usuals” for community.
Urban Campsite: Certainly the most versatile, if not the most difficult, option for shelter, the urban campsite offers a more nomadic sense of refuge, but your biggest enemies are moisture, cold and hot weather, and environmental predators, in that order. Furthermore, most cities have areas where outdoor sleeping is frowned upon—but not illegal—between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. While this can ease the burden of napping during the day, it does not mean you won’t be harassed or asked to move, and getting nighttime rest will be your biggest challenge.
A camp should be divided into three separate sections: where you sleep, where you eat, and where you take care of bodily functions. Dividing these is important when it comes to insects and scavenger animals, especially concerning leftover food wrappers or containers. Rats, raccoons, stray cats, other feral animals, and insects will likely ruin your site if you have any food remains lying around. Napkins from restaurants can serve as toilet paper if you cannot find or afford to get an adequate supply.
Martha, a 46-year-old Los Angeles resident, echoed the overwhelming collective sentiment of the virtue of finding higher ground whenever possible.
“… the urban campsite offers a more nomadic sense of refuge, but your biggest enemies are moisture, cold and hot weather, and environmental predators…”
“I have a few places I use. Underneath the overpasses, there’s a flat area at the top that you can hide in and sleep well. Loading platforms are also really good. Otherwise, I like to be on a hill by trees or bushes. But you gotta be careful by the parks at night, because the cops will get you,” she says. The “higher ground” theory applies to rooftops, as well. A man in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park had been sleeping on top of a mid-city building for a few months—thanks to an accessible fire escape. Rooftops can also lead to abandoned buildings, and these come with legal and dangerous problems of their own, which should be thought through before being considered. Hillsides with plenty of plant cover are ideal for protection from inclement weather, as well as concealment. Being elevated also decreases your chances of sleeping in puddles or accumulated rainwater runoff.
For cover, a section of tarp was used in multiple sites and can easily be taken down, folded, and carried. “You will want to camp where you feel the most safe,” says Jose, 59. “In the summer, you can get into the trees and bushes and get yourself a brown or green tarp, and nobody would see your camp.” If you have access to dollar stores, automotive shops, and garden centers, they are the most likely places that provide a chance of scoring a tarp. Tarps can easily be converted into tents and lean-tos, depending on the environment. In colder weather, they can be used to wrap around your sleeping bag or clothes for insulation.
Heavy-duty garbage bags also work and can double as ponchos or storage containers. Moisture is your biggest enemy—it compromises both warmth and hygiene. Hypothermia can also strike, even in “warm” weather. Avoid sleeping directly on the ground, because the cold will permeate your body quickly. Building a “bed” was the norm in all the campsites we saw, and old couch cushions, tree branches, boxes, and polystyrene foam nuggets were common materials.
Regardless, putting yourself—or even your sleeping bag—directly on the ground were no-nos. A sleeping bag will be your most prized possession, along with wool blankets, old curtains, and tablecloths, and extra clothing for warmth.
These items need to be taken with you at all times as well, because they are premium survival items and difficult to replace. Remaining as unseen as possible is absolutely crucial. Your campsite essentials should be portable in the event of the police or another homeless person ransacking it. A clean, or non-visible, camp is less likely to be disrupted or detected. If you’ve finally found a spot to regroup, the last thing you want to do is waste energy finding another one, and physical and psychological energy will become huge adversaries. If you are lucky, you might be able to stake a place for a month or so. “My camp was on private railroad land,” 52-year-old Coloradoan Doug said, “so I didn’t have to hide it as much. If you are well concealed, you don’t have to move yourself daily. Sneak out and sneak in.” In the case of a catastrophic-level event or martial law, all rules obviously go out the window. Currently, urban camping laws can vary from city to city, so there are no absolutes, other than the fact that in most cases, it is the cover that can draw negative attention from both law enforcement and others.
There are a few ways to create a heat source, depending on your situation or environment. Cans are invaluable in this arena, especially coffee or similarly sized cans, because their size makes them easily concealable, and they can be used for warmth or cooking. Eric, 30, uses them religiously. “I’ll go to a 99 cent store and get petroleum jelly and a lighter. Then, you just gotta poke holes in the can, put nails through ’em, wipe the petroleum on paper or cloth and set it where the nails meet. It will burn for a while. You just gotta keep putting more stuff inside before it burns out.”
Wood, newspaper, cloth, and cotton balls make good kindling. If you don’t have a lighter, matches can often be found for free at bars or hotels. You can cook food as you would s’mores at a campfire or, in Eric’s case, on top of an old cheese grater he found and cleaned that doubled as a perfect grilling rack and fit across his coffee can. A smaller soup or tuna can makes a good candle by using similar kindling methods. Those who have the access and the savvy can also use the flint-and-steel method to start fires.
Keeping yourself clean is one way to keep attention away from you—attention from people who might prey on you or your things, people who just want to harass you, or the police. It is important to blend in. The men we spoke with utilize the various city shelters that offer hot showers, but there are other things you can do in a pinch: Swimming pool showers are great for those near a pool or beach, and hotel lobby bathrooms are good—that is, if you can look somewhat clean going in or if you can sneak in. They have hand soap and hand dryers for your clothes. The towelettes that come with hot wings are great for cleaning your face, under arms, and groin and, because most people throw them away, you can find them everywhere.
Baking soda is also effective as both toothpaste and a deodorant substitute, and rubbing alcohol inside a spray bottle from a dollar store can be used as a quick shower remedy, coupled with an old or worn shirt. Hand sanitizers, toothbrushes, and razors are also cheap at those stores and highly recommended by the individuals we spoke with. Dental health is paramount, because your teeth will decay the quickest, depending on how long you are homeless. Your hygiene is also directly related to your freedom from inclement weather during business hours: You can walk around malls and department stores more freely if you don’t look homeless. Good hygiene is also crucial for seeking food sources.
CLOTHING AND BAGS
Perhaps the most important thing is keeping your feet as dry as possible. During the times you can get comfortable, take off your shoes and socks, and procure extra socks any time you can. Having multiple items of clothing helps in many ways. When one gets dirty, you can change, keeping the “dirty stigma” from you. When winter sets in, you can layer the clothes for warmth.
Doug has a different strategy. “I carry a backpack. It has my razor and my toothbrush, but I don’t carry extra clothes with me. I might carry one pair of jeans, one T-shirt, one underwear, but everything else is concealed at my camp.” The reason for this, he explains, is to avoid another homeless stigma: Carrying your “house” with you makes you stand out from the crowd of people going to work, lunch, or a baseball game. You want to blend in. Doug’s best advice on this is to find a shelter that has storage units and keep your things there if you can; if you can’t, it comes back to having a well-concealed camp. Whatever you do, keep your bag close. “Your whole world is in your backpack; if you lose your backpack and you need meds and they are in there, you’ve lost everything,” Doug advises. Remember: Your birth certificate and Social Security card can go for quite a bit of money, so keep them in a wallet or hide them well.
FOOD AND WATER
Again, hygiene plays a huge part in successfully finding food. Hotels often have free continental breakfasts, and if you look clean, you can eat and load up on great food stocks such as dry cereal, peanut butter, granola bars, breads, and bananas. Bagel shops, pizza places, and fast-food restaurants often have food that gets thrown away at the end of business. For instance, Eric has a good relationship at one pizza place that gives him leftover food before it reaches the dumpster by setting it outside at a certain time.
If you do dumpster-dive, your success will be related to nearby competition and knowing the best times and places to do it. The day-old racks at supermarkets can also yield cheaper food sources that need timely consumption. Condiments come courtesy of fast-food restaurant packets. Soup kitchens, missions, churches, and shelters also serve food; the trick is knowing when to go.
“You try to keep food that animals can’t smell, like canned goods,” Jose adds, “but I’ve slept with rats. It comes with the territory.” If you are unable to keep a concealed camp, be sure to carry food that is light, portable, and small. As a rule, your food should be simple to cook and something that won’t spoil quickly. Water sources are fairly easy to come by in a city. Just make sure you have at least one water bottle and fill it up every time you find a fountain. Army/Navy surplus stores also have iodine tablets, if you can afford them. A Lifestraw-type of product would be good to have in a bug-out bag; just to be sure you aren’t going to get sick from consumption. Some of Denver’s homeless head up into the foothills for the summer months and drink water from streams. But use basic camping smarts: Boil it.
“Hotels often have free continental breakfasts, and if you look clean, you can eat and load up on great food…”
You have a camp, access to water, a bag to carry your clothes, and food, but the reality of your situation will quickly set in. This is often the toughest aspect of being homeless, in that depression and mental fatigue can lead to substance abuse and apathy. “Get used to hearing ‘No,’” Doug says. There will be plenty to get you down, but you cannot focus on the negative. Greg points out, “In our situation, we really don’t put too much bacon into what will come tomorrow. We are focused on the day-to-day.”
While that may sound harsh, Jose says it helps him. “I expect everything to go wrong. It keeps me balanced. People will come at you for different reasons. Roll with what comes.” One way to do this is to maintain a social circle. Learn to get through each day with the help of others. “Homeless people form tight-knit communities. Street people will have each other’s backs,” Doug says. And, just as in high school, there are cliques on the streets. The youth will associate with the youth and the older with older people.
Being on the streets at night can be frightening, but Jose adds, “There is safety in numbers, but keep a close-knit group, and even with them, you still have to keep an eye out.” Keep your group small and learn to trust, the men say in agreement. Most importantly, you have to constantly adapt.
Another way, advocated by Eric, is to go it totally alone. “I don’t like being around other people, because I can’t trust them,” he says. “A lot of people are drugged-out, and that is contagious. They’re always negative, too. I hate going to shelters or being around them if I don’t have to; plus, the older people have worse attitudes. College kids are the coolest people to be around. They’re a lot less judgmental and down to help you more than other people.” He feels that being around other people who are homeless is also more depressing and believes that you have to do anything you can to keep your mind off your situation.
Finding books to read is extremely important in this regard, because boredom is tough to ignore and dangerous for your mental health. Bookstores often have “free piles,” and buses, train stations, and hotels are good for loose newspapers and discarded magazines.
No matter the cause, if you find yourself on the street, it does not have to be the gloomy horror many people make it out to be. It will not be a bed of roses either, but, as Doug says, “If you use common sense and live for each day, things will get better.” Don’t focus on the negative. By following some basic survival skills and keeping your mind balanced, you can survive days—or even weeks or months—on the streets until you can get yourself back on your feet. Denying the possibility and not planning will only make the reality you face on the streets that much harder.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.